Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee is almost certain to be shifted to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in the Cabinet reshuffle slated for Tuesday evening. But who then would succeed him in the Ministry of Defence, an equally coveted, though largely ceremonial, portfolio?
Well-placed political sources said Mukherjee’s mantle might fall on a senior Congress MP Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has decided to induct in his Cabinet.
"Nobody from within the present Council of Ministers will be made the defence minister," the sources told Hindustan Times.
From all available indications, the PM is not contemplating a huge reshuffle-cum-expansion. But he might have some new faces on board from the southern states, including Kerala, at the junior and senior levels. One among them -- former Kerala Chief Minister AK Antony -- could be the new Minister for Defence.
Under fire over his involvement in the UN oil-for-food scam, Natwar Singh had quit as External Affairs Minister in November last year. But finding his replacement was not an easy task for the PM who considered several names before deciding to persuade his defence minister, who wasn’t inclined to accept the job primarily because it entailed extensive travel.
"I am getting old and cannot travel that much now," Mukherjee recently told HT. Past 70 now, he was much younger when he last held the portfolio under PV Narasimha Rao in the 1990s. He has the requisite experience and the stature to shift foreign policy-making back to where it belongs -- the Ministry of External Affairs.
In his political career spanning several decades, Mukherjee has held several key portfolios: commerce, finance, external affairs and defence. The only important ministry that has remained out of his reach is that of home.
His transfer to the MEA would increase the PM’s work and also of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Singh relied on Mukherjee’s advice on complex issues of governance -- putting him in charge of over two-dozen subject-specific Groups of Ministers -- and Sonia had recently assigned him the task of reworking the party constitution.
In addition to the MEA and defence, Singh also has to fill up a vacancy that arose in the labour ministry following the resignation of Telangana Rashtra Samithi leader K Chandrasekhara Rao. But sources maintained that instead of appointing a full-time minister, the PM might give concurrent charge of Labour to one of his ministerial colleagues.
The MoS-level slot in the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s quota might go back to Jay Prakash Narayan Yadav, who had had to resign amid controversy during the Bihar Assembly elections.